In this final article, I will draw from two stories in the Bible that will be well-known to many readers, to give an example of how those who read the Bible as scripture can draw from those stories in developing modern economic ethics.
The first story is of the Garden of Eden, and of the two trees about which God commanded Adam and Eve. One tree is said to be that of the knowledge of good and evil, and the other t the tree of life. There is little dispute about the idea of the tree of life, but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has occasioned considerable debate. One widely rejected interpretation, which was popular in the church for a long time, was that this knowledge was of concupiscence, that is, sexual desire.
Instead, a simpler interpretation is better, which is that the idea of the tree was to do what it says, that is, to give knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2.9), and to make a person wise (3.6). The question then is, why would the text portray the idea of becoming wise as a moral failure? It is this interpretive instinct that has led so many people to seek an alternative idea, largely based around the speculative suggestion that some side-effect, unmentioned in the text, is the key to understanding it.
My view is that Ellen Davis is correct in Opening Israel’s Scriptures when she identifies the issue as human wisdom needing proper bounds. The garden is described as a place where an abundance of economic goods are available — admittedly, it is a rather bucolic scene, where humans exist by eating fruit from trees, rather than an advanced economy. Nevertheless, it does paint a striking contrast to the reality of most ancient human life, because the primeval couple are not portrayed as slogging it out in a brutal effort to maintain life in the face of a harsh planet, scratching out a meagre subsistence. The picture is of ease and plenty. Little human effort is required, and great human flourishing is offered.
Why, then, is wisdom withheld? The key insight is that wisdom is being held alongside law, in this case represented by God’s singular commandment. Wisdom in scripture is often taken to be the ways in which a thoughtful person might prosper in God’s world. In the case of Eden, this was fairly straightforward: eat more fruit. We must not make the mistake of imagining this in the context of modern life with its calorific fountain and epidemic of obesity. Unlimited food, and luxurious food at that (when most people subsisted on a dull diet of grains) was a happy picture. So to flourish in the garden meant to consume, and wisdom might well have been understood to have meant something like, “make the most of the opportunity.” Indeed, this is what Eve adduces when she examines the forbidden fruit. Not only does it make a person wise, it is good for food, and beautiful (Gen 3.6).
The critical point being made by Gen 3 is a moral one, which has economic implications. God’s command forbidding unlimited consumption is motivated neither by a desire to avoid the irreplaceable use of resources (the garden has no such limits in the story), nor by potential impact on others with fewer resources (there are no other people to compete with).
The moral point being made is that there are proper limits to mortals, and that to pursue wisdom beyond the restraint which the law enjoins is to attempt to exceed mortality. In this, the story finds its place alongside the story of Babel, where humans attempt to climb to divine status through a skyscraper, and the story of manna in the desert. In relation to the latter, Ellen Davis, drawing on Gregory of Nyssa, is right when she states:
the first virtue that informs a godly food economy (and probably a godly economy altogether) is restraint in how we meet our most fundamental need. Our culture does not celebrate the virtue of restraint; witness the rampant popularity of “Let It Go,” Elsa’s song from the Disney film Frozen: “It’s time to see what I can do / To test the limits and break through / No right, no wrong, no rules for me—I’m free!” Contrast that sentiment with the instruction that the apostle Paul gave to the Roman governor Felix, who had inquired “about faith in Christ Jesus” and then was unnerved by Paul’s gospel lesson on “justice and self-restraint and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:24–25). The connection that Paul sees between justice and self-restraint, basic also to the manna economy, is the principle that all get what they currently need, and no more. Abiding by that limit requires trusting that God will provide “our daily bread,” enough for everyone. Moreover, that practice of self-restraint is essential to there being enough; our trust in God turns out to be part of the dynamic whereby God’s promise is fulfilled for the whole covenant community. That is why obedience to these two simple rules is a critical test of Israel’s ability to become a covenant community, of their willingness to walk in God’s torah, or not.
She goes on to explicitly link this to the Eden “story about eating within a divinely set limit—a limit that the first humans violated, with the result that they were expelled from Eden. Putting together these two stories of beginnings—of humanity as a whole and of the people Israel—we might infer that eating modestly and mindfully is one of our chief obligations to the God who created us and keeps us alive.”
Davis also alludes to a key aspect of the possibility of restraint: a belief or at least hope that in God’s world, there will in fact be enough. In combination with the mandate for humans to multiply, this suggests that there is a basic optimism which informs the viewpoints of the biblical world, an optimism that there is potential for growth and expansion in economic resources. This idea of growth is critical to seeing the world as having the capacity to support creative endeavour, entrepreneurial activity, and risk-taking which is not at the expense of other humans.
A more pessimistic view of the world often lies behind the idea that economic life is a zero-sum game, and that the solution to the woes of many is to redistribute the limited resources available. In my view this tends to in practice reduce the world to an equality of misery, and I think that part of the reason why the Bible as a text has continued to hold an evocative power in cultures with a historic connection to it is that it does hold out an idea of future growth which invites an optimistic participation in human endeavour.
So the cautionary stories about exceeding the proper limits of mortal humanity, in the context of divine commands, need to be read within the wider framing of a story of abundance, growth, and plenty. There is no need to exceed the bounds of restraint proper to humans, in at least one thread of biblical imagination, because there will be plenty for everyone and even some left over.
This dual possibility informs another story, the one which rounds out the book of Genesis. The story of Joseph as the archetypal wise administrator is well-known. What has not always been observed is the clever storytelling, which highlights the limits of wisdom. Joseph does indeed demonstrate that in God’s world, there is such an opportunity for growth and abundance that a wise person can produce vast growth of economic resources — enough, it turns out, not only for Egypt to survive a famine, but to act as a source of food for other countries.
The way in which Joseph achieves this, however, is by doing precisely those things which the law will later prohibit: he takes away the possessions, land, and eventually the freedom of the Egyptians. These were all perfectly normal things for ancient Near Eastern rulers to do, but in the Bible these actions are contrasted with the divine commands prohibiting them in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy which immediately follow the story. Recall, too, that the end of Genesis is a narrative which establishes how the nation of Israel found themselves enslaved — it turns out, of course, that this situation follow’s Joseph’s actions. Joseph is indeed the archetypal wise administrator, but the story shows the limits of human wisdom to achieve moral economic outcomes.
In summary, I would suggest that these two themes of growth and restraint, not often seen as particularly economic in nature, are narrative threads which offer a productive way to approach economic ethics. In my view, they offer modern economic ethicists more to work with than a rigid attempt to apply specific rules around debt, interest, and land tenure. They also, I suggest, offer a framing for those laws and the stories that engage with the specific economic practices of the ancient Near East. The laws of gleaning, for example, presuppose a situation where a farmer can expect to produce so much growth that they do not need to extract everything, and where the overflow of their produce can support those less fortunate. The presupposition of growth motivates a restraint in enjoying the bounty of God’s good world, a restraint that has less to do with ensuring sufficient for everyone else, and is mostly a morally-oriented choice to recognise the proper limits of humanity.
Dr Lyndon Drake has recently completed a DPhil at Oxford on theology and economic capital in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. He also has degrees in science and commerce (Auckland), a PhD in computer science (York), and two prior degrees in theology (Oxford), along with a number of peer-reviewed academic publications in science and theology. From the Ngāi Tahu Māori tribal group, he currently serves as Archdeacon of Tāmaki Makaurau in the Māori Anglican bishopric of Te Tai Tokerau. Lyndon has written Capital Markets for the Common Good: A Christian Perspective (Oxford: 2017, Oxford Centre for Enterprise, Markets, and Ethics). He is married to Miriam with three children. Until 2010, Lyndon was a Vice President at Barclays Capital in London.